By Andrea Shalal
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Pentagon's F-35 program office on Wednesday said it is taking steps to make it safer for lightweight pilots to eject from the Lockheed Martin Corp stealth fighter jet, but said it could take another year to resolve possible hazards.
Lieutenant General Chris Bogdan, who runs the $391 billion F-35 program, told lawmakers the military is taking three separate steps to reduce the risk that pilots who weigh 105 to 135 lbs (48 to 61 kg) could injure or snap their necks while ejecting.
"It has my full attention," he told the House Armed Services Committee's subcommittee on tactical air and land forces. Bogdan said the nine other countries buying the airplane were also concerned about the ejection seat issue.
The fixes include adding a switch to slow the ejection mechanism for lighter pilots, a redesign to reduce the weight of the pilot's helmet, and a change to the parachute itself.
U.S. military authorities on Aug. 27 restricted pilots weighing less than 136 lbs (62 kg) from flying the jets until it resolves issues with the seats made by UK-based Martin Baker Aircraft Corp.
This is the latest problem to beset the F-35 program, which is years behind schedule and well over initial cost estimates, but officials said the program is making solid progress and most other technical issues have been resolved.
Only one pilot of 215 pilots trained to fly the jets was affected by the restriction, and he has been transferred to the F-22 fighter jet program, according to a U.S. official.
The ban was put in place after tests discovered increased risk of neck injury to lightweight pilots during the catapult of the seat, the resulting wind blast, and the actual opening of the parachute, Bogdan told the committee.
Bogdan said lightweight pilots had a 1 in 50,000 chance of hurting their neck from an ejection, compared with pilots weighing 136 pounds (61.69 kg) to 165 pounds (74.84 kg), who had a risk of 1 in 200,000 of a neck injury.
(Reporting by Andrea Shalal; Editing by Bernard Orr)